Original mouldings are a desirable asset to any period home, but sometimes require nursing back to health. We look at renovators’ options, and ask the experts for their insider secrets. Includes advice on cornicing and architrave.
A huge part of the appeal of buying an old home is undoubtedly the original features. Those renovating Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and even Art Deco properties are likely to be the proud inheritors of elegant interior mouldings — a term used to describe features such as cornicing, ceiling roses, skirting, dado and picture rails. But after years of use your cornicing, for example, may be in need of repair, with cracks evident or sections missing, or perhaps it’s been ripped out altogether by a previous owner. Or, if you’re planning to extend or remodel, how the mouldings can be replicated on new walls is likely to cause some head scratching.
A Quick History
Mouldings add depth and character to walls, but also served a functional role covering unsightly joints — cornicing, for example, hid the juncture between the walls and ceiling, while skirting not only covered that between the walls and floor but helped protect plaster walls from impact (and so timber has remained the material of choice for skirting throughout the ages; try John Boddy Timber for new or replacement skirting) and dado rails from chairs.
The period in which your home was built will likely give you clues to the material used, and perhaps the profile and style of enrichment (decorative detailing such as ‘egg and dart’) if any. Wood was originally used, but plaster became the material du jour for the Georgians. Plaster cornicing was run in-situ, applied to walls whilst wet, with templates (running moulds) run across to create the desired profile.(Papier mâché was sometimes used, too.) Enrichments could be individually cast and applied (painstaking stuff) and the ‘public’ rooms usually featured a house’s more ornate work.
“Georgian cornicing was typically delicate in profile,” adds Ronnie Clifford of Ornate Interiors. The Neoclassical revival saw Grecian figure enrichments common, while egg and dart was often seen in Palladian homes. “Victorian cornicing was quite plain but with heavy floral and also Gothic motifs,” continues Clifford. Edwardian homes saw simpler profiles and enrichment.
With major repairs such as missing sections or the addition of a new wall, it’s a good idea to call in a cornice and/or plaster specialist who will ‘take a squeeze’ or cross section. “This is basically a plaster collar from ceiling to wall. When the plaster sets and the collar is removed, the shape of the cornice profile is imprinted. This allows us to transfer a very accurate copy of the profile to the factory for running a solid plaster mould which, once set, we can cast from,” explains David Fountain of Reproplaster.
You can have a go at taking a squeeze and creating your own cornicing, but it is time-consuming and as Clifford warns, “a messy job; specialists have workshops designed for the task.”
The cost and time involved in getting a professional in depends on the complexity of the cornice and the material used. Fibrous plaster allows for a length of cornice to be cast in one and installed. “It’s cleaner and also cheaper,” says Clifford. A simple 3m plain-run fibrous plaster moulding with little enrichment could cost £100-200, with a turn-around of a week.
But if you own a listed home or one of historic importance, then you may need to run traditional plaster cornices in-situ, which is a more labourious (and expensive) task. “Each coat takes time to cure,” says Clifford, “so a standard room could take three to four weeks.”
The benefit of commissioning a professional is that the results will have a unique handcrafted aesthetic — true to the original.
A Blank Canvas?
If interior mouldings have been ripped out, or perhaps you’re building a new period home, it can be difficult to know where to start. “The best place to begin is looking in neighbours’ homes,” advises Ronnie Clifford of Ornate Interiors. “In a row of terraces or semi-detached homes, for example, the same moulds were more than likely used.” For authentic results, and if the neighbours are willing, having a professional take a squeeze of those next door is a great idea.
Alternatively you could take inspiration from similar homes, research local era styles, and source your own cornicing. There’s a wealth of off-the-shelf options available and many companies will categorise their products into eras to help with specification. There are also a number of material options including lightweight polyurethane and GFRP (glass fibre reinforced polymer).
However, there are a couple of important points to consider. “It’s a good idea to live in and get a feel for the house first; one of the most common mistakes homeowners make is installing a product soon after moving in and then realising it doesn’t quite work in their interior,” says Clifford.
“Another common mistake is concentrating on pattern rather than size,” says David Fountain of Reproplaster. “Size is the number-one criteria, since getting the scale and proportions correct is what makes new cornices convincing replacements of what was once there. The vast majority of original cornices at 3m+ ceiling heights have a girth of 200-250mm minimum, and often larger. Homeowners viewing them at close range in the showroom tend to look at 150mm girth cornices, not realising they’re too small. Very often the difference in cost between a cornice that is too small and one that is big enough can be less than £5/m.” As such, it’s always a very good idea to visit a showroom or order samples before specifying.
Other Common Repairs
Another problem which renovators may encounter is layers of different paint, which have built up over the years, obscuring delicate enrichments. Again, there are a number of plaster specialists who can undertake the task of removal for you.
Alternatively, if you’re a confident DIYer you can opt to take on this delicate work yourself. “The first option is steam, which is very effective in peeling off the layers,” says Ronnie Clifford of Ornate Interiors.
There are also products available to remove stubborn layers. “Today there are much better products available like ‘Peelaway’, which can remove up to 30 layers in a 1” brush-applied application, including all lead- and oil-based paints, and latex,” says KL Langton Decorative Plasterwork’s Keith Langton. “There are water-based/biodegradable versions, too, such as Smart Strip, which may take off less layers in a single application and need a little more effort, but are just as effective,” continues Langton, who advises wearing protective gear. “Always patch test first on a small section,” adds Clifford.
“A good DIYer can do many a small repair to a plain-run in-situ cornice,” says Langton, who provides his advice on repairing another common ailment: “Cracks can be carefully cut out using a sharp utility knife to create a V-joint and then back-filled using either Pollyfilla or Easi-fill. Both need to be applied using a plastic filler knife/blade rather than a metal tool to minimise damage. Leave the newly plastered joint slightly built-up to dry overnight. Gently sand down the dry filler using 240-grit sandpaper. You may need a second application on larger cracks.”
Cracks to more ornate cornicing may require professional attention.